Riders walk their horses by a lake, backed by a sunlit mountain range

How ‘America the Beautiful’ was born

To gather inspiration for her patriotic poem, scholar and social activist Katharine Lee Bates traveled the U.S. Her words tell the American story.

Riders take their horses by a lake, backed by a sunlit mountain range in Montana.

Photograph by Keith Ladzinski, National Geographic Image Collection

Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, had a chestnut-eyed collie named Hamlet and a green parrot named Polonius. She taught Shakespeare, and she wrote poetry. She loved to travel.

At her rambling Victorian house, a brisk walk from campus, she kept dozens of souvenirs, propped up on the mantel, displayed in glass-doored cabinets: a brass Buddha from China, an alabaster urn from an Egyptian tomb, a bottle of sand from Panama. She made a list of her favor­ites in a little inventory she once typed up, everything from “a lamp bought from a boy in Nazareth” to “a tin slate of a verse from the Koran.” On her desk she kept a framed portrait of Dante; she’d picked it up in Florence.

She’d been to Syria. She’d toured Palestine. She’d ridden a camel in Damascus. She’d hiked the Alps. She’d even seen the Dead Sea. But Katharine Lee Bates is best remembered for a single trip she took in 1893, a pilgrimage across the United States, and for the poem she wrote about that trip. She had an eye for grandeur and for wonder, for landscape and miniature, the poet’s version of the photographer’s eye.

She left Boston by train on June 29, 1893. The next day, she felt on her face the mist of one of the world’s most stunning wonders and wrote in her diary about “the glory and the music of Niagara Falls.” “Reached Chicago,” she wrote two days later, from the site of a world’s fair, the Columbian Exposition.

She spent July 4 in the prairie, in western Kansas, eyeing its amber waves of grain. She wrote in her diary that she considered herself “a better American for such a Fourth.” The next day, she reached Colorado Springs, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, in all their purple majesty.

She’d agreed to lecture on Chaucer for the summer, at Colorado College. She taught her course and then, near the end of July, she went on an expedition to the Garden of the Gods, where red sandstone rises out of the earth in formations that look like so many cathedral spires. She headed next to a 14,115-foot mountain called Tava, or Sun Mountain, by the Ute. “Pikes Peak or Bust,” she wrote in her diary. She boarded a horse-drawn prairie wagon: Halfway up, the driver switched out the horses for more surefooted mules.

(Related: These beautiful places are what really make America great.)

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At last, they reached the summit, a view she took in, she later said, in “one ecstatic gaze”: below, a bedspread of green pine; in the distance, peaks capped with white; above, a sky the blue of a robin’s egg. She wrote one line more in her diary that day: “Most glorious scenery I ever beheld.” That night, in her room at the Antlers Hotel, she began composing a poem.

America, the Beautiful,” Bates’s poem, set to music, became the United States’ unofficial anthem, a hymn of love of country. There are plenty of better poems about America, the land and the people, including Walt Whitman’s “For You O Democracy,” written on the eve of the Civil War: “I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, / and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies, / I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.”

You can hear the echoes of Whitman in Bates. You can hear an answer to both of them—an indictment of both of them—in Langston Hughes’s 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again”: “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” And you can hear a very different confession of love in Shirley Geok-lin Lim’s 1998 poem “Learning to Love America”: “because my son will bury me here / because countries are in our blood and we bleed them / because it is late and too late to change my mind / because it is time.”

Countries are in our blood and we bleed them. Lim’s poem sounds, at first, more raw than “America! America! God shed His grace on thee,” as if Bates’s poem dates to a simpler America. It does not. Americans of Katharine Lee Bates’s day were as politically divided as Americans of this day—arguably, they were more divided—over everything from immigration to land use to racial justice to economic inequality. And her America was similar to this America in more ways, too: It was wondrous and cruel, rich and poor, merciless and merciful, beautiful and ugly.

Quite what Bates meant, in each line of the poem, is worth pondering, because the poem is a window to another America, and also, in its way, a mirror to our own. In writing about beauty, I like to think Professor Bates took a cue from her beloved Hamlet (Act III, Scene 1): “Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

Katharine Lee Bates inherited, as every American does, a struggle for justice. She was born on the seaside, in Falmouth, Massachusetts, spitting distance from the ocean, in the summer of 1859, just weeks before a white-haired self-professed messiah named John Brown and a band of Black abolitionists raided a U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to collect and distribute enough guns to incite a massive slave rebellion in the Southern states. She was the youngest of five children. Her father was a Congregational minister; her mother, who, astonishingly, for the time, had a college degree, had been a schoolteacher.

The Civil War broke out when Katie was still a baby. She hadn’t yet turned six when John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. In 1868, when Katie was nine, her mother gave her a little red notebook. The 14th Amendment, ratified that year, guaranteed the equal protection of the law, regardless of race, but made no provision for the equality of the sexes. In the pages of her little red notebook, nine-year-old Katie reflected on the political status of women. “I am happy to say they have become impatient under the restraint men put upon them,” she wrote. “The great question of women’s rights has arisen.”

(Related: A century after women’s suffrage, the fight for equality isn’t over.)

It might have been that spark that led the Bates family to do something unusual. Katie’s father died when she was a baby, and, at a time when boys were far more likely than girls to get an education, Katie’s brothers worked so that Katie could go to school. In 1885, at 26, she became a professor. Two years later, she published her first book of poetry.

At Wellesley, Bates fell in love with another young professor, Katharine Ellis Coman, an economic historian who specialized in the study of the American West. They lived together for 25 years. From a third-floor study in the house where Bates displayed the souvenirs of her many travels, Coman wrote her best books, including The Industrial History of the United States. Coman, born on a farm in Ohio, was the daughter of an abolitionist. She was a formidable intellectual—Bates once wrote that her eyes had “the strength of folded granite”—and she was a political activist. She helped organize the Chicago Garment Workers’ Strike, and, with Bates, she set up immigrant aid societies in Boston. Coman was also a socialist.

Coman and Bates didn’t always agree about politics: Coman always took the side of the labor against capital, but Bates, as her earliest biographer put it, “privately felt that there were two sides to every question and that after all there was something to be said for capitalism.” Still, they shared a profound Christian faith, and they were both entirely immersed in the world of Progressive era social and political reform.

Then, too, Bates’s love of the wilderness, in particular, was influenced by Coman, who taught a course on “the wastes involved in the exploitation of forests, mineral resources, soil and water power, and the means proposed for scientific conservation,” helping to found a field that would later be called environmental science.

In July 1893, when Katharine Lee Bates’s train got to Chicago, she stopped to meet Coman, who was there visiting her family. Together, they toured the Columbian Exposition, which had been mounted the year before to honor the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Its features, spread over 600 acres of fairgrounds, included a White City, immortalized in “America, the Beautiful” as “thine alabaster cities.”

Not mentioned in Bates’s poem are the fair’s many other exhibits, which included more than 400 indigenous Americans on display in what amounted to human zoos, exhibits that had elicited protest. Potawatomi Simon Pokagon sold at the fair a booklet he printed on white birch bark, called “The Red Man’s Rebuke,” in which he bitterly informed “the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair.”

Coman had long been “warmly interested in the progress of colored people.” So it’s hard to imagine that Bates, touring the grounds with her, didn’t notice that, in the era of Jim Crow, the fair was racially segregated: only the janitors were Black—the janitors plus the African Americans who appeared in a series of displays devoted to the history of slavery, or those who were posed, nearly naked, in fake African villages.

Frederick Douglass was slated to speak at a designated “Colored People’s Day.” After the Civil War, Douglass had called for a new vision of America, his own America, the beautiful. “I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours,” he’d said.

And yet in 1882 Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning immigration from China, and states had begun passing the first Jim Crow laws, enforcing strict racial segregation, and, notwithstanding the 14th and 15th Amendments, denying Black men the right to vote.

(Related: Historic interpreters share their sides of the story.)

In 1893, when Douglass was invited to speak at the Columbian Exposition, he hoped to speak about all of that, but Mississippi-born Ida B. Wells, founder of the newspaper Free Speech and best known for her fearless campaign against lynching, tried to persuade Douglass to turn down the invitation. He went ahead anyway: “Men talk of the Negro problem,” he began, but “there is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

Katharine Lee Bates never saw that speech. She’d left for Colorado by then. She’d traveled on from Chicago alone, but a few days after she arrived, Coman joined her; she taught at Colorado College that summer, too. The two women went everywhere together. “We loved it all!” Bates would write in her diary. They read the newspapers together, too, following news of a financial collapse, the Panic of 1893. “Hard Times,” read the headlines. “Cotton Mills Closing.” In those years, railroad workers struck, on average, once a year, and some 2,000 railroad men were killed on the job and 20,000 injured. A railroad workers union founded in 1893 would go on to become the Socialist Party of America.

Bates’s first draft of “America, the Beautiful” lavishes its love on the stops she made on that trip from Boston to Colorado Springs: the “music-hearted sea” of Niagara; “thine alabaster cities”—the White City that she’d seen in Chicago; the “amber waves of grain” she’d seen in the Kansas prairie; the “purple mountains majesties” of the Rockies. Fundamentally, too, Bates honored American history as a march of freedom, “O beautiful for pilgrim feet/ ... A thoroughfare for freedom beat.” She celebrated American spirit.

“America, the Beautiful,” is also, passionately, a religious poem, one that gives thanks and asks for blessing: “God shed His grace on thee.” But Bates’s first draft of the poem—each of her drafts of the poem—contains, too, a critique of the United States. She asks that God give His grace to America, “Till selfish gain no longer stain, / The banner of the free!” Bates’s beautiful America had sinned, and its sin was greed.

The best poetry Katharine Lee Bates ever wrote appeared in a book called Yellow Clover, a book of love poems she wrote in memory of Katharine Coman. Coman had gotten breast cancer. She endured two mastectomies, at a time when the surgery was experimental, and particularly horrible. Bates nursed her until her terrible, agonizing death. (“We let you suffer long before we called / On morphine, life’s last mercy, lest / It fail you ere the end.”)

After Coman’s death, Bates wrote, “My own life died, … and I seem always to be, as now, listening, alone, from a far-off place, to the glad or excited or passionate voices, yet all the more aware of the beauty and the pathos of humanity.” Something they had shared died with Coman, something that had helped Bates find the beauty in the world, and the beauty in America.

Years before, on that summer’s day, July 22, 1893, they’d started out at dawn. “Dear Soul who found earth sweet,” Bates wrote in Yellow Clover, “Remember by love’s grace, …

How suddenly we halted in our climb,
Lingering, reluctant, up that farthest hill,
Stopped for the blossoms closest to our feet,
And gave them as a token
Each to each,
In lieu of speech.

The higher they climbed, the colder the air, the thinner the trees. The summit was as bare as a glacier, except for a little house, no more than a hut, built of stone, and nearly empty but for a telegraph machine. Bates posted a telegram to her mother. “Greetings from Pikes Peak. Glorious. Dizzy. Wish you were here. Katharine B.C.” It seems to have been how the two Katharines signed off together: Katharine Bates and Katharine Coman. Katharine B.C. It’s as if “America, the Beautiful,” had not one author, but two.

(Related: Wild U.S. hiking trails that cannot be missed.)

I like, anyway, to picture them there together, huddled against the wind, on top of the world, as if they could see from sea to shining sea, clutching yellow clover. They thought of the country differently. Coman could more easily see its errors, its violence, its bitter divisions; Bates could more easily appreciate its nobility, its ingenuity and invention and the greatness of its ideas. But they both loved it, all the same. Bates later added a few new lines, “America! America! / God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” Coman would have liked that.

“America, the Beautiful”
Katharine Lee Bates

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress,
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And every grain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years,
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

Jill Lepore is a best-selling historian and professor of American history at Harvard University. As a wide-ranging and prolific essayist, Lepore writes about American history, law, literature, and politics. She has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2005 and is the author of many award-winning books, including the international bestseller, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018).
This essay is the foreword to National Geographic’s America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs. A celebration of the cultural and natural history of the U.S., the book features 250 magnificent images of all 50 states and six territories, curated from more than 20 million photographs in National Geographic’s vaunted archives. Buy a copy here.

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